The man with the golden arm, a novel

by Nelson Algren

Hardcover, 1949




Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1949.


"A novel of rare genius, The Man with the Golden Arm describes the dissolution of a card-dealing WWII veteran named Frankie Machine, caught in the act of slowly cutting his own heart into wafer-thin slices. For Frankie, a murder committed may be the least of his problems. The literary critic Malcolm Cowley called The Man with the Golden Arm "Algren's defense of the individual," while Carl Sandburg wrote of its "strange midnight dignity." A literary tour de force, here is a novel unlike any other, one in which drug addiction, poverty, and human failure somehow suggest a defense of human dignity and a reason for hope. Seven Stories Press separately publishes the critical edition of The Man with the Golden Arm, the first critical edition of an Algren work, featuring an extra 100+ pages of insightful essays by Russell Banks, Bettina Drew, James R. Giles, Carlo Rotella, William Savage, Lee Stringer, Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, and others"--… (more)

Media reviews

I’m still amazed that this dark and risky novel, The Man with the Golden Arm—it ends with a poem/epitaph!—won such high canonical praise (perhaps making way for descendents like Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, and Denis Johnson’s Angels?).

User reviews

LibraryThing member Carissa.Green
I understand why this book is considered a classic of a sorts. I understand that it was groundbreaking, and there still are not a lot of books like it. But I wasn't crazy about it. I found the vernacular hard to wade through. On top of that, Algren often writes an opaque sentence full of flourish,
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in which meaning gets lost, rather than just saying what's happening. But most importantly, these are ugly people who have given up even before they have come of age. I didn't like any of them, except for the prostitute Molly-O. I found that most of the time, I just didn't care what happened to them. I am not sorry I read this book, because it is important to read the classics, the books that made a mark, but if you don't share that value with me, I'd say skip it. Bleh. -cg
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Nelson Algren wrote: ". . . I was going to write a war novel. But it turned out to be this Golden Arm thing. I mean, the war kind of slipped away, and those people with the hypos came along and that was it."
This suggests that Algren was overcome by his own creation, and I suppose that can happen
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sometimes, when you create such real gritty characters. This novel, The Man With the Golden Arm, is certainly gritty, and real, and a fascinating read. The characters literally jump out at you from the page and you realize that the author knows these people and has the skill to impart that knowledge. While sometimes both harrowing and grim, the novel grips the reader and does not let him go. My reaction, as it was with Camus' The Stranger, is that this is not a world I would want to live in but it makes me think. If you enjoy this book you might want to explore Never Come Morning and other works by Nelson Algren.
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LibraryThing member jenniferthomp75
Dense and provocative, Algren's classic novel about addiction is just as relevant today as it was 60 years ago. Although I found it difficult at first, especially with the slang, I decided to try and read while the soundtrack to the film version played in the background. Immediately, I found that I
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understood the book better and felt a part of the time period. Can't wait to check out the film and compare the two.
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LibraryThing member mojomomma
Here's a feel-good book that will restore your faith in humanity. Not!

Algren's tale of hustler Frankie Majcinek (or Machine) in post WWII Chicago is utterly bleak and depressing. All you can do is watch Frankie slowly circle the drain. Lots of dialect and slang makes it difficult to know what's
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happening to whom. The writing may be inspired, but its just too dreary for me.
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LibraryThing member marisdotter
Very realistic
LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
"Yet the week ran out on Saturday night and he was no richer than he had been Monday morning. The old merry-go-round was rolling again and he had to ride as hard as any."

"Some cats just swing like that."

It took me quite a while to get into this book, which was the winner of the first National Book
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Award, I think primarily because of the extensive use of 1940's slang, particularly slang related to cards and gambling, drug addiction, and the out and out poverty, despair and ugliness surrounding all the book's characters. It's set in the Polish ghetto of Chicago in the years immediately after World War II. The main character, Francis Majcinek, aka Frankie Magic, aka the Dealer, is the man with the golden arm. He's a card dealer, a good one, and he deals the game run every night in the back room by Schwieftia. He is almost always accompanied by Solly Saltskin, aka the Sparrow, aka the Punk, aka the Steerer, and together they commit petty crimes to get by, whenever they are not involved in a card game or some serious drinking or in jail for a bit.

There's another reason Frankie is the man with the golden arm--he's also a drug addict. Because of a wound during the war, he is frequently in pain, and craves the relief morphine brings. He frequently believes he can kick it at any time, and is not an addict, but his fixer, and we the reader, know otherwise.

Frankie is married to Sophie, and she has been in a wheelchair since a car accident with Frankie drunk at the wheel left her apparently unable to stand or walk. Her only outlet in life is in keeping a scrapbook of fatal accidents. Frankie doesn't love Sophie, and no longer wants to be married to her, but stays with her out of guilt. And Sophie reminds Frankie constantly that he is the cause of her predicament.

Algren has been described as the "poet of the lost," and the book is unrelentingly bleak and dark. Beyond the main characters I've described above there are many other denizens of this gritty decrepit urban neighborhood with whom the book involves us, many of them known just by their nicknames or occupations. Besides the Fixer, there is the landlord of the seedy rooming house where Frankie and Sophie live known as "the jailer," there's Drunkie John, "a mouth at the end of a whiskey glass," Blind Pig, whose actions lead to the ultimate downfall of Frankie, and many other poor and lost souls. All of them are in on "the great secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all in the land where ownership and virtue are one."

Despite the hopelessness of his characters, Algren writes beautifully. He is an amazing prose stylist. As I said, because of the slang, it was at first hard to follow, but once I learned the characters (many of whom are referred to by multiple names) and got into the flow of the story and the language it was hard to put the book down. I can well understand why this book won the National Book Award, and why it is on the 1001 list.

First line(s): "The captain never drank. Yet toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December's first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken."

Last line: "To rustle away down the last dark wall of all."

4 1/2 stars
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Local notes

Signed by Algren. Winner of the 1950 National Book Award. non-circulating
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